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216                                                                                                            B. POLEVOI

The electric train sped through the Moscow suburbs, its
wheels rattling out a merry tune and its siren sounding
angrily. Meresyev sat near the window, forced right up
against the wall by a clean-shaven old man wearing a
broad-brimmed Maxim Gorky hat and gold-rimmed pince-
nez attached to a black cord. Between his knees he held a
hoe, a spade and a pitchfork, carefully wrapped in news-
paper and tied with string.
Like everybody else in those grim days, the old man
thought of nothing but the war. He vigorously waved
his thin hand in front of Meresyev's nose and whispered
into his ear in an important manner:
"You mustn't think that I don't understand our plan
because I'm a civilian. I understand it perfectly. It's to
entice the enemy into the steppes of the Volga, yes, and
get him to stretch his lines of communication, to lose
contact with his base, as they say nowadays, and then, from
there, from the west and the north, cut his communica-
tions and smash him. Yes. And it's a very clever plan.
We haven't got only Hitler against us. He is whipping
the whole of Europe against us. We are fighting single-
handed against six countries. Single-handed! We've got
to weaken the force of their blow at least with the aid of
space. Yes. This is the only reasonable way. After all,
our allies are keeping quiet, aren't they? What do you
think?"
"I think you are talking piffle. Our land is too precious
to use it as a shock absorber," answered Meresyev in an
unfriendly tone, suddenly remembering the desolate,
gutted village he had crawled through in the winter.
But the old man went on buzzing in Meresyev's ear,
breathing the smell of tobacco and barley coffee into his
face.
Alexei leaned out of the window and, letting the gusts
of warm, dusty wind buffet his face, gazed eagerly at the
passing stations with their faded green fences and gaily
painted kiosks now boarded up, at the little cottages
peeping out of the green woods, at the emerald banks of
the now dried-up streams, at the wax-candle trunks of
the pine-trees shining like amber in the light of the setting